Do Campaign Contributions Improve Expertise In Congress?

Do hard money contributions by interest groups to members of Congress contribute to better quality policy deliberations and outcomes in congressional committees? A new study conducted by political scientist Kevin M. Esterling (University of California, Riverside) finds that over the long term—regardless of the intent of such contributions—they tend to create incentives for members of Congress to enhance their analytical capacity for policymaking.

In an article entitled "Buying Expertise: Campaign Contributions and Attention to Policy Analysis in Congressional Committees," Esterling explores the institutional effect of hard money campaign contributions by interest groups on spurring interest in "policy information, reasoned arguments, and expertise in congressional committees" by members of Congress. The article appears in the February issue of American Political Science Review, a journal of the American Political Science Association (APSA), and is available online at

Washington-based elites and interest groups regularly debate the implications of proposed courses of government action and this analysis is often couched in terms of analytical policy research. The author notes that for members of Congress, acquiring the policy expertise needed to engage in this debate while continuing to appeal to their constituents in terms they can relate to "creates a dilemma" because policy expertise is "inherently difficult to communicate in a sound bite that will resonate with constituents." Contributions by interest groups shape this environment by establishing a tangible incentive structure for lawmakers to care about policy expertise and outcomes. In his analysis Esterling groups members of Congress into two categories based on their analytical capacity given their background, prior occupation, education, interest in policy analysis, and staffing patterns—among other factors. "Work horses" include members who have a high analytical capacity and in hearings focus on the intellectual and analytical aspects of policies that are of interest to organized groups. "Show horses" are members who have a low analytical capacity and tend to emphasize their identification with constituents in hearings.

Using data drawn from 23 hearings on the Medicare program held by 9 congressional committees between 2000 and 2003 and involving 203 different lawmakers, the author makes several important observations based on a rigorous analytical model. First, hard money campaign contributions by interest groups "create incentives for members to build analytical capacity." Second, "contributions and attention to analysis in committees go hand-in-hand." Third, "show horses do not tend to attract contributions from groups." Fourth, "bill sponsors tend to act as workhorses." Fifth, "a member who especially is concerned with connecting with constituents will feel the need to attend to constituent interests using accessible and empathetic dialogue." Finally, the author states that in the long term, as campaign contributions flow to more productive members, "elections may select higher capacity members across congressional election cycles." On balance, Esterling concludes that even if unintentional, these contributions amount to "a type of subsidy that…improves the policymaking capacity and professionalism of the legislature. In this sense, hard money contributions provide a normative good to democracy."

The debate over the role and impact of interest groups in politics and policy formulation is a longstanding one in the discipline of political science and broader American society, as reflected by the prominence of issues such as campaign finance reform. By employing a rigorous analytical framework, these research findings shed light on these important questions and refine our understanding of them—most notably with regard to the specific issue of private money contributions to lawmakers.

Written from a news release by American Political Science Association